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COMMENTARY

New PH diplomacy–negotiating out of fear

12:08 AM November 21, 2016

Since President Duterte took office, he has repeatedly said the Philippines would pursue an “independent foreign policy.” Based on his performance, we are headed in the wrong direction, and we are in fact pursuing a foreign policy subservient to China.

National security is the primordial goal of a country’s foreign policy: On this issue depends a country’s survival. China’s construction of artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea makes our national territory indefensible. Our country will be within combat range of jet aircraft, not to mention short-range missiles that China can install on these islands. Thus, the primordial thrust of our foreign policy should be China’s withdrawal from these islands. There must be a return to the old frontiers, with Hainan, 900 kilometers away, as the nearest Chinese military base. The ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague serves as the basis for this position.

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It is a settled doctrine in international law that in territorial disputes, a country must keep asserting its claims. Otherwise, it could lose the disputed territory by default under the doctrine of prescription or abandonment.  The current posture of Mr. Duterte of keeping silent on the arbitral court’s ruling in his dealings with China cannot be maintained by succeeding presidents because it would mean abandonment of our claim to the West Philippine Sea.

The thrust of our current diplomacy emphasizing economic relations and

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ignoring our political dispute with China is a bad tradeoff.  Whatever benefits we may get from such relations will be offset by the massive defense expenditures we will incur if we leave China in possession of these artificial islands.

Territorial disputes are not resolved overnight. We must be patient and pursue China’s withdrawal from our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) on a long-term basis. For just one example, the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 but did not regain their independence until 50 years later, in 1990. This happened only because Mikhail Gorbachev a reformist, became Soviet leader in 1984.

Consequently, we should not expect that this issue can be settled under the regime of China’s Xi Jinping. We are dealing with a totalitarian society. There are no checks on Xi’s powers, like public opinion or a freely elected parliament. The ordinary Chinese does not know what is happening in the West Philippine Sea. We will have to await changes in the Chinese ruling circles before we can reasonably expect settlement of this dispute. The major task then of the Duterte administration is to pass on intact to our succeeding leaders our territorial claims to the West Philippine Sea.

An independent foreign policy requires an evenhanded approach. Mr. Duterte has called for the withdrawal of US military facilities in the Philippines but has not made a concomitant demand for China’s withdrawal from the artificial islands it has built in our EEZ. The runways on these islands are evidently for military use, not for commercial flights. Thus, the “independent foreign policy” espoused by Mr. Duterte could be better characterized as a policy of subservience to China. We have failed to assert an issue of vital importance to our national interest—in this case, China’s withdrawal from our EEZ as provided under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Our foreign policy now is a case of taking on a friendly bully, the United States, which we think will not hurt us, and not asserting our vital national interest against a hostile bully, China, for fear it will clobber us.

US President John F. Kennedy once said: “We must not fear to negotiate, but we must not negotiate out of fear.” Sadly, we are negotiating out of fear in our present relations with China. Mr. Duterte has been in power for only four months; hopefully he will reverse course and pursue a truly independent foreign policy.

Retired ambassador Hermenegildo C. Cruz holds a master of arts degree in law and diplomacy, major in international development studies, jointly conferred by Tufts and Harvard Universities.

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